engaging online students
Online Learning

Three Keys to Starting Strong in Your Online Course

The start of the term is a critical time for any course, when students form an impression that can help or hinder them for the duration of a class. There are three key practices that can set the tone for the entire term and have an effect on retention and student success if implemented.

First impressions are important, so reflect on how you welcome students and the tone you use. Many students report feeling overwhelmed when they start online classes, and a verbose first message can exacerbate that. Ideally, your course will have some sort of “Start Here” section or unit, which might contain your syllabus; the course schedule; and links to Learning Management System tutorials, downloads students might need, or campus services that might be helpful (tutoring, financial aid, counseling). I also include a link to a quiz for students to assess if they are suited to online learning. With your “Start Here” in place, your initial message to students can direct them there; avoid being overly wordy, and instead, focus on helping them to feel at home. This helps build your presence and create trust in you, and it can establish you as a part of the learning community of the class as well. You may even want to create a short welcome video, but we will talk about videos later.

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class participation
Discussion Techniques

Class Participation: What Behaviors Count?

What counts for participation isn’t always addressed when we talk with students about the importance of participation. It’s easy to assume that everybody knows what’s involved—but is that a safe assumption?

When considering what qualifies as participation, some behaviors come to mind quickly—asking questions, answering questions, and making comments. But are those the only options? Maybe interaction in our courses would improve if we broadened the definition and considered some alternatives.

The behaviors that most often count as participation relate to verbal communication—what students say. And we all know that some students, close to 50% according to most studies, are very reluctant to say anything. With broader, more inclusive definitions, we might make it easier for shy, fearful, and reticent students to learn how to answer confidently when they are called on and how to speak up in a discussion when they have something of value to contribute.

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group exams
Grading and Feedback

Group Exams and Quizzes: Design Options to Consider

Although still not at all that widely used, there’s long-standing interest in letting students work together on quizzes or exams. Upon first hearing about the approach, teachers’ initial response is almost always negative. Here are the most common objections.

  • Grades are measures of individual mastery of material. With a group exam or quiz, some students may get a better grade than they’ve earned. Group grades do not measure individual learning.
  • A group can settle on wrong answers and thereby lower the score of the single bright student in the group who knows the right answer.
  • Group exams and quizzes make it too easy for students. They don’t have to think for themselves but can rely on others in the group to do the thinking for them.
  • It’s cheating. Students are getting answers they don’t know from other students. They’re consulting another source rather than putting in the work and developing their own knowledge.
  • Certifying exams (various professional exams such as those in nursing, accounting, the MCAT and GRE, for example) are not group exams. Group quizzes and exams do not prepare students for these all-important assessments.

On the other hand, those who do allow group collaboration on exams and quizzes may respond to the objections with a corresponding set of set of advantages associated with their use.

  • Group exams and quizzes reduce test anxiety. Pretty much across the board, students report that anticipating and participating in group exams and quizzes makes them feel less anxious. And for students with exam anxiety, that can be a significant benefit.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams show students that they can learn from each other. Many students arrive in courses believing the only person they can learn from is the teacher. But as they talk about test questions, share answer justifications, discuss what content the answer requires, they get to experience what it’s like to learn from peers.
  • Group quizzes and exams provide immediate feedback. Students don’t have to wait to get the exam back. They get a good indication from those in the group why the answer is or is not correct.
  • Working together on test questions teaches students how to identify credible arguments and sources. Given the opportunity to change answers based on what someone else says directly confronts students with the tough issues of who to believe and when to trust their own judgment.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams model how problem solving in professional contexts usually occurs. Professionals collaborate, they have access to resources, they can contact experts, they argue options, and evaluate possible answers. Collaborative testing gives students the opportunity to see how and why that results in better decision making.
  • Group quizzes and exams can improve exam scores and sometimes, but not always, content retention. The improvement in scores is an expected outcome of collaboration, but the improvement is also present when students collaborate on exam questions and then answer questions that deal with the same content on a subsequent exam taken individually. Effects of collaboration on retention are mixed. See the following references listed at the end of this article for examples: Cortright, Collins, Rodenbaugh and DiCarlo, (2002), Gilley and Clarkson (2014), Leight, Sunders, Calkins and Withers (2012), Lust and Conklin (2003) and Woody, Woody and Bromley (2008).

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student on a laptop
Classroom Climate

How Student Learning Can Begin before the First Day of Class

The first time my middle school-aged son attended a Major League ballgame, he was astounded by what the players were doing on the field before the game. He saw some of his favorite players contorting in all sorts of positions: balancing, running backwards and sideways, even lying on the ground, some stretching their hamstrings with enormous rubber bands. One player even stood on one leg with outstretched arms. He could not understand why all those moves were required, since he never witnessed a single one of those motions in the game. But even through his misunderstanding, he did recognize something significant: all the players believed in what they were doing, even if he could not see the significance behind their pregame gymnastics. Essentially, my son saw the importance of the practice routine before the big game, even if he did not fully comprehend it. And even more importantly, he witnessed the characteristics of practice the players needed even if they performed in ways not directly related to the practice.

And so it is with college teaching. Students and their professors see the importance of the first day, that big game. But often they do not make the connection with the practice routine, divorced from the look and feel of when they’re keeping score during the semester. But even those professors and their students who recognize the primacy of practice can still find it difficult, even impossible, to find enough time on the first day to initiate such practice. After all, there’s the syllabus to go over, the structure of the class to introduce, names to learn and mispronounce. There’s so many activities for professors to do. And perhaps that’s the core problem. It is professors who are explaining, exhibiting, and demonstrating. They are taking on all the activities of practice that they want their students to enact. And while professors are practicing on the field, students assume another role and become the spectators in the stands, wondering why all this practice is necessary before they have to take the field themselves and play the big game.

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students not engaged
Blended and Flipped

The Flipped Classroom: Strategies to Overcome Student Resistance and Increase Student Engagement [Transcript]

The flipped classroom model encourages students to complete preliminary work prior to class so they are prepared to engage in higher-level learning experiences during class. But what happens when students don’t do the preclass work and aren’t prepared to participate?

This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the flipped classroom model, and you may consider abandoning the approach completely. But there are strategies you can use to address these challenges and increase students’ motivation to come to class prepared and ready to engage.

Dr. Barbi Honeycutt, founder of FLIP It Consulting and an expert on the flipped classroom, provides strategies you can use to create a successful flipped learning experience for you and your students.

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adult student - online classes
Online Learning

Developing Online Instructor Presence

What is instructor presence? It’s the way that instructors present themselves to the students in the online classroom. It also involves simply being present to students through the regular posting of course materials, discussion posts, and announcements.

Instructor presence increases student retention because students are more likely to stay in class if they feel their instructor cares about them. By being present, the instructor can pull students together, encouraging cooperation and collaboration. Additionally, if things start to go off the rails and a student begins to have problems, an instructor who is present can address those problems immediately.

How does one establish instructor presence in an online class? First, determine your teaching persona. Next, determine which elements to share with the class. Last, create a strategy for regularly expressing those aspects of your persona to your class.

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Four puzzle pieces
Classroom Climate

Four Things to Do on the First Day of Class

First impressions are important and you can make favorable ones on the first day of class by doing things just a bit out of the ordinary. Here are some ideas.

  1. If it’s a course where students don’t think they know anything about the content, start by dissecting course title. For each keyword, ask student to report (or write down) the first word or phrase that comes to mind. Make a collection of these on the computer or white board. Accept all associations. Then use the collection to provide an overview of the course, pointing out (where it’s appropriate) that students aren’t as clueless about the content as they may think they are. It’s also a useful way to establish a common foundation, the place on which you can start building the course structure.

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Legal issues for faculty
Legal Issues

Faculty Members and FERPA, ADA Section 504, and Title IX [Transcript]

Most faculty members are focused on their core areas of academic expertise, which is as it should be. They are often not trained on the ins and outs of these laws and may not be able to interpret or apply them when needed.

For example, you probably know about FERPA, ADA, and Title IX, but do you know how they apply in specific classroom situations? Or with specific student populations? And what the potential consequences are for you and your institution if you don’t follow the law?

Get answers to these questions and more with the complete transcript to the Magna online seminar, Faculty Members and FERPA, ADA Section 504, and Title IX: How to Use the Fundamentals of These Regulations to Better Identify and Resolve Potential Problems.

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faculty mentoring
Preparing to Teach

A Case for Coaching in Faculty Development

I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just for players trying to make it into the big leagues; “even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.” (Gawande, 2011)

If coaching is a proven strategy for ensuring that athletes perform at their best and is used at the highest levels in the business world, why shouldn’t faculty turn to coaching to ensure continued growth and peak performance? In a piece in The New Yorker magazine, renowned surgeon Atwal Gawande recounts his experiences in hiring a retired surgeon to coach him to even higher degrees of professional excellence than he had achieved on his own. Rather than coasting at mid-career on his accomplishments, Gawande stretched his skills further, reduced his complication rates, and concluded that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” (Gawande, 2011)

Coaching as a professional development strategy is beginning to take hold in the education sector. In the preface to his text, “Instructional Coaching” Jim Knight recounts an experience all too familiar to those of us working in faculty development in higher education. At the conclusion of a workshop, he invited participants to send him an update after they’ve had a chance to experiment with some of the evidence-based instructional strategies discussed during the session. “At the end of 2 years, I had not received one postcard. The reality was, I suspected, that inservice sessions just did not provide enough support for most people to implement what they had learned.” (Knight, 2007)

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